What is fair to say and what is hyperbole? Is it overstating things to say the Grateful Dead have become so much more than just their music? They define pieces of us. Times with friends. Discovery. They have become an institution reaching further than just recordings of their shows. But no matter what, for all of us, it still starts there; with the music. The music was and is a driving force in us. But since it has ended, and it has ended, what we are left with are new branches growing from roots sewn in the 60’s. The music is being recreated and redefined and then what? It is at this place on their own very strong branch that Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is a budding flower. Their reimaging of the music of the Grateful Dead is not tired. It is not just the songs as they once were. It is new growth with a strong anchor upon its trunk.
So much of what a band does is based on its confidence and JRAD exudes confidence from the ground up. In the days leading up to this show, is was announced that Joe Russo was not going to attend due to the recent (and early) arrival of his daughter. The namesake of the band was missing the gig?!? But, in the spirit of the Dead’s make-up for nearly their entire existence, the JRAD team simply booked a pair of drummers. While neither are household names, John Kimock is quickly becoming one as a drummer and not just as the son of Steve. So, I was content with this sudden line-up change, if for no other reason, then to simply see how the band would work through it.
But first, we had to even have a show to attend, and 2 hours before the show, Mother Nature was having her say in that pissing contest. High winds and a quick, but drenching rainstorm put the possibility of cancellation on the table. But the JRAD team yet again got things together; this time in the festival grounds, along with the Maratime staff. Despite a line outside of the gates that extended about a quarter of a mile from the festival grounds (It’s legit, I checked it on google maps), we were able to get in smoothly by the time the band started, a little after 7:30.
None of these hiccups appeared to affect the band. Sure, it was clear from the beginning that everybody whose name isn’t Joe Russo was going to carry a bit more water. But just as they have done every time I have seen them, JRAD did exactly what the situation called for. They changed. Confidently. Tom Hamilton, who seems to have already developed his band leader chops, was able to communicate with everyone on stage. The banter between he and Scott Metzger lasted all night and their playing was a product of their close communication. Everyone was aware and listening to one and other. Everyone heard the pockets in the music develop and sank quickly into them. Everyone co-existed once the groove was established.
I haven’t neglected the songs from which these grooves originated haphazardly. But this is the original step forward of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Everyone else seems to be either recreating the sound of the Grateful Dead and recreating the music within their sound. JRAD is using the songs of the Grateful Dead to recreate everything. They honor what came before them, but they don’t trip over themselves trying to recreate something that is best appreciated in its original form. Instead, they launch, confidently and originally, from the music as remembered. They insert their individuality into each song’s chorus, verses and jams. Like the original band, each player in JRAD is incredibly different from the other’s, yet when they play together, these differences are complementary.
From the opening notes of Feel Like A Stranger, the drumming was different. Let’s be honest. I mean Joe Russo sits right in the middle of the stage. He is ever present and his willingness to drive a new rhythm into unexpected crevices of Dead songs is irreplaceable. So, they didn’t replace him. They changed the sound. Drums were incredibly solid all night, and with the advent of two, all holes were filled. Many of the night’s songs got extended intros so the drummers could find the rhythm, never easy and even more complicated with two drummers on stage. But the straightforward progressions of Scarlet>Fire, Good Lovin’ and Minglewood allowed for a beautifully played, although straightforward, first set. Unfortunately, the weather delay before the show shortened the band’s playing window considerably, so those 5 songs made up the entirety of the first frame.
The second set began in true JRAD style. China Cat did not go into Rider as expected, instead segueing into Iko Iko. The band picked up where they had left off in the first set. Tom and Scott allowed the drums to find a comfortable progression at the beginning of each song before diving off into unknown places with their dueling lead guitars. Marco seemed to take more solos in the existing rhythms of the songs, rather than pushing the band out of grooves, as he seems to revel in doing. After Brown Eyed Women, the band seemed to push into The Other One, with the heavy jam and bass licks by Dave would have suggested, but instead they transitioned into Truckin’, the jam of the night. It was a vintage Dead tune played with sincerity and reverence. The crowd felt the band’s energy, their musical expression of fulfillment for the night. Although the band knew to hit the brakes and slow things down with Brokedown Palace before finishing the set with Samson and an encore of GDTRFB, the night’s lesson had been conveyed early on.
For those who were experiencing their first JRAD show, I don’t believe they left feeling let down. Despite the weather, the delay entering and the early arrival of Joe’s second daughter, the band did all they could to entertain us. And entertained we were. For those of us who were seeing JRAD for our 2nd to 200th time, as this was the band’s 200th show, it was a unique experience to see such a dynamic change in the band’s typically atypical take on the Dead. As all Dead shows were, and all JRAD shows seem to be, this was an experience unique to itself.